MP for Hornsey and Wood Green
It’s a year today since the election for a Mayor and Assembly for London. So – how was it for you?
Speaking personally, it’s been quite something. To be in, not just at the birth of a unique new form of government, but Chair of the Assembly’s Transport Policy committee and a member of the new Metropolitan Police Authority is an honour I am more than grateful for and an opportunity few people get in a lifetime.
There are some drawbacks. I don’t have enough time for my children. I don’t have a social life and I am looking older and a bit haggard. But I wouldn’t change it for the world. London is just an amazing city and I get to play a part in working to deliver an even better capital city. We all know what needs doing – it’s pushing it through and doing it that is the challenge.
If I had to give Ken marks out of ten for his first year as Mayor, I guess I would give him six-ish – perhaps seven if he’d be even tougher in fighting the Government over its Tube privatisation plans.
What are the good things he has done? He hired Bob Kiley, New York’s transport saviour, to be London’s Transport Commissioner. That single move will probably do London more good than anything.
Livingstone also deserves praise for fighting the Government’s plans to privatise the Tube. This is the key battle for London. My fear at this moment in time is that Livingstone is afraid of hurting them in the run up to the election. He balks at telling Londoners to send Labour a message through the ballot box, which is a shame, because that is the only place this Government seems to listen to.
Instead he has handed over absolute control to Kiley to negotiate a final deal on the Tube. Well, as much as I respect Kiley, he is in the end a transport manager and this is a political battle. As much as Ken may wish to avoid the political confrontation with Prescott, Blair and Brown – the row is a political power issue and it is his political job as Mayor of London to fight for what’s best for London, not what’s expedient for the Government – to keep quiet until after the election.
Also to Livingstone’s credit is that he has put congestion charging firmly on the agenda. This huge undertaking is an important step towards the cultural changes that will be necessary in every major, traffic-ridden city in the world. There are all sorts of difficulties ahead, but the major one is changing the car culture.
We all love our cars – comfortable, relatively cheap, no exposure to the elements – but it can’t go on. And any politician who challenges the notion that we might not be able to use our cars just when we like and how we like is a very brave one. But not beginning the long road to control car usage would cost us far more in the long term. Of course, the challenge for Ken here is to make public transport so good that the pain of withdrawal from our cars is mitigated by a better and cheaper alternative. And let’s not forget that cutting congestion on the roads will also benefit people making those journeys that still have to be made by car.
And he finally showed real leadership – unequivocal condemnation of anarchist’s plans over the May Day demonstrations. By the time this is published, we will know whether anarchy or peaceful protest over capitalist globalisation was the order of the day. But the Mayor of London stood full square in the public arena and condemned violence, and pointed out that it damaged what actually are valid protests and did those causes harm.
Small but important things Ken has done: put pigeons in their place; encouraged businesses to give old computers to London school kids; made travel on public transport for school trips free. All good moves.
But there are also things he hasn’t done in his first year and should have. Firstly, he hasn’t got any real plans to tackle traffic congestion in outer London. He has done nothing about the killer school run where better public transport can make a real difference – such as much needed introduction of a bus route linking Muswell Hill, Highgate and Hampstead.
He should have got a shovel underground on at least one of the major infrastructure projects such as Cross Rail or the Chelsea-Hackney line.
He should have condemned the Tube strikes unequivocally. They hurt Londoners who already have an impossible time getting to work. Whilst everyone in London is concerned about safety on the Tube and probably in some sympathy with that aspect of the unions’ concerns, Ken should have used his close relationship with the unions and advised them to use their power to tell people to send Blair a message on the Tube. Alternatively, he could have suggested to them instead of striking, to work a normal day – but refuse to take any fares. That’s a good message too – that hurts the government not the people.
So happy first birthday Mayor Ken. Push harder and move faster. And remember Ambrose Bierce’s definition of a politician – “An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organised society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice.”
(c) Lynne Featherstone, 2001